America’s Middle Class Meltdown

By Sam Fleming & Lindsay Whipp at Financial Times

Asked when she plans to retire, Christine Acosta’s answer is emphatic. Never. The Florida resident restarted her career in her fifties after getting a bachelors degree, setting up a business in Tampa called Pedal Power Promoters that advocates for cyclists and provides valet parking for bikes at big events.

Her determination to keep working comes as older Americans become an increasingly important force in the economy, with many resisting retirement to earn — and spend — well into their golden years.

“Retirement is beginning to look for a lot of people like me like too much idle time,” she said. Millennials — people aged 18-35 — were getting all the attention, she added, whereas “it is a missed opportunity if businesses don’t tap into the boomer set”.

The US middle class is already being reshaped by its ageing population, and older citizens are set to play a swelling role in the economy as their weight in the middle and upper income brackets mounts. New data from the Pew Research Center show that households aged 65 and over have been the biggest economic gainers this century, as well as since the beginning of the 1970s.

The group has seen the largest move up the income ladder of any major demographic over the period, with the share of people aged 65 and over in the upper-income brackets more than doubling since 1971 to 17 per cent. That still leaves people in that age group more likely to be lower income than the other demographics tracked by Pew.

Separate projections by the McKinsey Global Institute to be released early next year show the ageing population’s dramatic impact on future US spending patterns. Americans aged 60 and over are forecast to drive half of all US spending growth between 2015 and 2030. Spending by people aged 60-74 will rise by 3.2 per cent a year in real terms over that period, while consumption by people aged 75 and older will increase 5.1 per cent — well above the 2.4 per cent growth rate predicted for the population as a whole, the estimates show.

Jaana Remes, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, said older customers would be a “very interesting engine of consumption growth in the US” and that she was surprised she had not heard corporate leaders express more interest in this group.

Significant parts of that extra spending will be on healthcare as the ageing population puts mounting demands on the medical sector. Healthcare support occupations are set to see the fastest employment growth of 22 major occupation groups between 2014 and 2024, according to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released this week. Medical services will account for 18 per cent of overall consumption by 2024, compared with 16.7 per cent in 2014.

But broader swaths of the corporate world will need to respond. Close to half of spending growth in the categories of personal care, housing, food and entertainment will be driven by households headed by someone aged at least 60 between now and 2030, the McKinsey projections show.

Start-ups are making some of the most aggressive efforts to target America’s ageing population. Contenders range from Active Protective, a company providing micro-airbags inside clothing that soften the impact of falls, to Gociety, which creates senior-friendly smartphone interfaces, and Narrative Apparel, which will sell clothes that are targeted at older shoppers.

The market also holds potential for much larger companies. People over 65 are emerging as more enthusiastic buyers of SUVs than the wider population, for example, according to IHS Automotive data, with companies such as Ford touting the popularity of its vehicles with baby boomers.

L’Oréal, the French cosmetics company, has tapped into the desire of women in their fifties, sixties and seventies to look glamorous, using actors such as Helen Mirren, 70, and Diane Keaton, 69, to sell its products.

“People are just starting to wake up — both small and large companies,” said Katy Fike, a venture capitalist and founder of a network for start-ups focused on senior citizens called Aging 2.0. “It’s too big to ignore.”

Jerry Storch, chief executive of Hudson’s Bay Company, which owns and operates the Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor department stores in the US, said that while HBC was focused on enticing millennials, “we have a very heavy penetration of baby boomer customers”.

Offering an attentive service was key to attracting this demographic, he said, as older customers were more likely to visit stores rather than shopping online.

Older Americans are also playing a more important role in the workforce, as lengthening lifespans and threadbare retirement packages propel some to stay in the jobs market for longer. New projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the labour force participation rate of those aged 65 and older will rise from 18.6 per cent in 2014 to 21.7 per cent in 2024.

The phenomenon was seized upon this year by the Hollywood film “The Intern”, which depicts Robert De Niro as a 70-year-old widower who takes up a post in an online fashion company.

Robert Schwartz, the 75-year-old president of New York shoemaker and retailer Eneslow, said nine of his company’s 32 staff were over 60. “I would always take on older workers — they have more experience, skills and they come to work on time,” he said.

Peter Hubbell, founder of Boomagers, which acts as a consultancy and marketing firm for companies wanting to attract mature consumers, argued that many US companies were still ignoring the potential of the senior citizen market.

“The fact of the matter is, most companies don’t have a strategy,” Mr Hubbell said. “[They are] seduced by the potential of the millennial, and that plays into their comfort zone as they don’t need to rethink what they’re doing.”

Methodology: The Middle and the Rest

There are any number of ways to define the middle class — it can be a state of mind, a reflection of whether someone owns their own home, or whether they do white-collar work. Pew Research Center definitions are based strictly on income groups, adjusted for household size, in 2014 dollars:

Chart: US middle class data

Lowest income Households with less than half the overall median income: less than $31,000 a year in 2015.

Lower-middle income Households from one-half to less than two-thirds the overall median income: between $31,000 to $42,000 a year in 2015.

Middle income Households with an income that is two-thirds to twice overall median income: between $42,000 to $126,000 a year in 2015.

Upper-middle income Households with an income that is between twice and three times overall median income: between $126,000 to $188,000 a year in 2015.

Upper income Households with an income that is more than three times the median, or more than $188,000 a year in 2015.


Source: Middle-class Meltdown: Older Americans Reshape the Economy – Financial Times